The 2500 block of Kirk Ave. in Baltimore is hardly the first place one would expect to find international award-winning architecture.
It's part of a quasi-industrial area best known as the location of Green Spring Dairy, a storage yard for city buses, a former Coca-Cola plant and an old John Deere distribution center.
But this working-class section of Baltimore was in the spotlight earlier this month when one of those buildings, the former John Deere property at 2524 Kirk Ave., received an international award for the way it has been preserved and renovated.
Total Office Interiors, a Baltimore Stationery Co. subsidiary that has owned the building since the late 1960s, invested $1 million to upgrade the interior for continued use as home for its contract furniture dealership.
That renovation received the Will Ching Award from the International Interior Design Association, a highly coveted prize in the interior design industry. It's given annually during the NeoCon convention in Chicago to recognize outstanding commercial design by a firm with five employees or less. Past winners have worked in cities from Omaha, Neb., to Osaka, Japan.
The firm that redesigned Total Office Interiors' space and won the Ching Award this year was Riley & Rohrer, a 3-year-old Baltimore-based partnership headed by Paul Van Riley and Dianne Rohrer. Brigitte Meneveau was a third member of the design team. Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse was the general contractor.
"It's a terrific piece of work" said Francis Duffy, a noted designer from New York and London who served on the awards jury. "They took an existing building and totally refreshed it, made it habitable. It takes high intelligence to get the best out of an old building with the least resources. They used color and light in a very imaginative way to bring it back to life."
The jurors were especially impressed by the designers' resourcefulness in working with a relatively low budget -- about $50 per square foot -- according to Lewis Goetz, president-elect of the IIDA and facilitator of the awards competition.
"There was something wonderful about the simplicity of the project," he said. "The jury liked that they got so much for so little. The design was simple, restrained and very powerful all at the same time."
Will Ching was an East Coast designer who believed good design can come from small firms. In reviewing entries, Goetz said, jurors respond well to projects that also show that good design doesn't have to cost a lot.
"It's easy to do good design when you have a lot of money. It's harder to do good design when you don't have a lot -- but it definitely can be done."
The jury also liked that the designers were sensitive to the existing building, which dates from the 1940s.
Sometimes designers "come in and mess things up," Goetz said, but Riley and Rohrer "let the natural architecture come through and enhanced it."
The home of Total Office Interiors is a three-story structure characterized by large windows and flared columns that had been hidden by a lay-in ceiling.
After considering a move to the suburbs, the owners of Total Office Interiors decided to renovate their existing building to create a new showroom for the furniture they sell, as well as meeting rooms, a resource library, kitchen, lunchroom and executive offices.
Riley & Rohrer expressed the client's desire to start over by peeling away non-original parts of the building to let in more natural light and reveal the original structure, with its flared columns and high ceilings.
The designers added elements to organize the 17,000- square-foot space, including three red accent walls and an egg-shaped metal enclosure that houses the receptionist's desk and divides the waiting area from other parts of the building.
The primary space is a "working showroom" where company employees occupy workstations that double as displays for prospective customers. Selected areas are remodeled periodically as new products arrive, to create furniture "vignettes" with the renovated building as the backdrop. The upper floors have been left for a future expansion or possible use by other tenants.
Rohrer, 40, is a Hagerstown native who graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Riley, 39, was born in Melbourne, Fla., and graduated from the University of Florida. They met while working at Cho, Wilks and Benn, where Rohrer was a senior associate and director of interiors and Riley was a senior associate.
Although they've worked on other award-winning projects, this is the first time Riley and Rohrer have received international recognition for a project. Theirs was selected over dozens submitted by designers from around the world, and they flew to Chicago to accept the award on June 10.
Rohrer said she hopes the success of Total Office Interiors will encourage others to renovate buildings nearby.
"We're always pushing for people to stay and invest in the city," she said. "When you're in that neighborhood, you can see the potential it has."
Bill Jones, president of Total Office Interiors, said he's delighted with the finished space and the attention it has received. "It took a long time to get done, but it's beautiful," he said.
Jones said he disagrees with those who characterize the project as "low-budget," however. While it may seem low to some, he said, for his company "it was a big investment."